He stalked him. He’s a racist. That white man attacked him because he was black. Justice was not adequately served at the criminal-court level. Federal intervention is necessary.
Yes, politicians, so-called “activists” and their mainstream media mouthpieces are throwing these claims around, jockeying for position as they exploit “white-Hispanic” George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the Trayvon Martin case.
Those same claims, unfortunately, were once spewed in my direction.
Once, that is, meaning a four-year period of post-traumatic stress and turmoil stemming from multiple, nightmarish dramas – courtroom circuses that I entered as an attempted-murder victim but exited as a federal civil-rights defendant.
In fact, I later became the target of a lawsuit filed by the same black man who put a bullet in my left armpit at point-blank range.
Unlike Zimmerman, I had no gun.
My employer – the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, or RIOC – chose (and to this day still chooses) to deploy a force of unarmed “special patrolmen.” RIOC, a quasi-governmental entity of the state of New York, legally may arm its Public Safety Department but exercises its equally lawful right to decline that firearms option.
Additionally, thanks to a welfare-to-work program in which RIOC participated, I didn’t even have a baton, more commonly known as a nightstick.
When the New York Police Department offered a baton-training class, it limited how many trainees could attend that particular day.
RIOC,therefore, decided that all 10 or so of the social-services participants in the NYPD program must attend it – even though, ultimately, Roosevelt Island intended to hire just a few of these women, some of whom eventually proved to be exemplary officers.
Consequently, several existing RIOC employees – including those already assigned to limited patrol duty as “public safety officers” – got bumped from the training.
I was one of them.
RIOC subsequently sent me out to safeguard the island equipped with just a can of pepper spray, a radio and a flashlight. I don’t recall if I had a whistle, too.
Special patrolmen are deputized peace officers, a legal status granting them the powers of arrest and to issue summonses.
NYPD granted to me and others the status of a “special” strictly on Roosevelt Island, a sliver of land in the middle of New York City’s East River between Manhattan and the borough of Queens.
For those unfamiliar with Roosevelt Island, which outsiders sometimes confuse with the city jail at Riker’s Island, it’s a largely residential community known for the red cable car, the Tramway, that runs along the 59th Street Bridge – a frequent battleground of choice for various Hollywood good guy-bad guy showdowns.
Sylvester Stallone battled Rutger Hauer there in ‘Nighthawks,” while more recently it’s where the Green Goblin met his end in “Spiderman II.”
On the sunny but brisk afternoon of March 14, 1990, during roll call I was assigned to the elementary school traffic post, due north of the Tramway, where I would be tasked with regulating traffic flow and helping kindergartners through eighth-graders safely traverse the busy Main Street crosswalk.
As I started the 3-to-11 shift, I bumped into a friend – Officer Dave, I’ll call him – an African-American colleague who just finished working the 7-to-3 tour. We made plans that late-winter day to soon meet for drinks downtown.
Within 15 minutes or so of Dave’s departure, I observed someone acting in a way that warranted further attention.
That someone happened to be black, who, it turned out, strongly expressed his feelings that I had no right to stop him. I much later learned he was a retired NYPD officer; who, I eventually discovered, was the island’s former security director. It would be revealed, he had successfully sued RIOC’s predecessor organization, which allegedly fired him because he was black.
I witnessed the motorist – utterly unaware of his history with Roosevelt Island – blow past a stop sign at the elementary school crosswalk, where I visibly stood at mid-day.
The driver, whom I will refer to as Leonard Rondell (not his real name), parked his car nearby and began walking north on the sidewalk, where I asked, “Didn’t you see the stop sign?”
He hurled obscenities at me and kept moving. I then called the dispatcher, requesting she send a sergeant to my location. I advised Rondell I was a peace officer and demanded he stop.
“I’m telling you, boy,” he threatened. “You ain’t s***. Get the f*** away from me.”
I called the dispatcher to expedite the sergeant’s response. Rondell continued on his way.
Other than arrest him immediately – which legally I could have and, in hindsight, should have done – he gave me no choice but to block his path. In the hopes of preventing further escalation of the situation, however, I left enough distance for him to halt.
Rondell instead chose to nearly bowl me over, forcing me to raise my hand in a futile attempt to prevent him from making bodily contact. Shuddering and shouting, he again warned me to break off my pursuit or else.
This time I called for emergency back-up from all available officers.
But before they arrived, Rondell reached for a holstered gun in his waistband. Fearing for my life, I swung my four D-cell Mag Light, aiming for his skull. I wanted to preserve my life, not necessarily take his.
But he got off one shot, which entered the seam in my bullet-proof vest, smashing through my left armpit at 1,100 feet-per-second. I tumbled to the sidewalk then played dead, listening in horror to the sound of his shoes stopping and scraping near my head.
I awaited a barrage of bullets to burst through the back of my skull.
Rondell, fortunately, did not fire another round. He was then arrested and charged with attempted murder and assault.
Unlike Zimmerman, I had no audio tapes documenting my repeated calls for help – tapes that would have shown a progression of events rather than a supposedly abrupt eruption of emotions leading to violence.
Unfortunately, because of the ongoing trouble between Rondell and RIOC officers – who, unknown to me, regularly observed him violating traffic laws and refusing to cooperate – some of those black, white and Latino officers on the day of the shooting verbally celebrated what appeared to be Rondell’s now-certain demise.
Those discussions took place within recording distance of microphones throughout the Public Safety Office. Someone in the department – apparently at the highest level of management, as the court and the Manhattan DA’s Office concluded – then destroyed the tape.
The tape, by the way, simultaneously recorded all radio transmissions. As a result, I was deprived of the ability to prove – other than through my testimony – that I called for back-up three times.
It was now my word against Rondell’s. Even though several people previously testified before the grand jury, as well as during evidentiary proceedings known as Rosario hearings, those witnesses would not be recalled for the criminal trial.
That was the court’s remedy to address the destruction of evidence, to restore the balance. On a positive note, it refused to drop the charges against Rondell – the remedy his attorney preferred.
Though the court emphatically agreed I did not participate in the tape’s disappearance, the jury now was “free to infer, if it wishes, that the tapes would not have supported” my version of events, according to the Rosario Decision & Order.
The defense subsequently launched an attack on me, claiming at trial that I was an overzealous security guard who for no reason but unbridled, racist hatred left his elementary school traffic-post to call a middle-aged black man “boy” and “n*****” before threatening to take his life with a flashlight.
Rondell, of course, was left with no choice but to shoot me to repel my racist attack, the defense claimed.
The jurors bought it. They acquitted him of all charges.
About a year later, I was served with papers to appear in federal court for allegedly violating Rondell’s civil rights.
My name appeared on a long list of defendants, including NYPD Commissioner Lee Brown, New York City’s second black police chief. Brown, however, was later dropped from the lawsuit because it had been the city’s first-ever black NYPD commissioner, Benjamin Ward, who was in charge during the period in question.
During the criminal trial, Rondell’s attorney acknowledged that his client and I did not know each other and that our encounter had nothing to do with the long, adversarial history between Rondell and RIOC.
In my federal trial, however, his new attorney – who was later disbarred in an unrelated matter – falsely claimed I participated in a “campaign of terror” against Rondell “and other persons of color.”
In June 1994, the federal jury cleared my name. All other defendants either had been dropped from the lawsuit or likewise were exonerated.
I committed no wrongdoing, the jury determined. Rondell could not collect the $10 million in damages he sought.
It had taken more than 50 months since the day of my near-death encounter to achieve vindication.
Though I endured a four-year-plus series of prosecutorial debacles, unlike Zimmerman, my case largely fell under the media radar screen.
The day of and the day after March 14, 1990, New York-area TV stations and newspapers covered it. In the aftermath of the shooting, only the New York Law Journal covered it – and even then, it focused primarily on the Rosario hearing. That was it.
In some ways, back then I was troubled that it had taken place literally in the weeks following the LAPD-Rodney King incident. The insanity of my case – the sheer racial antagonism cloaked in the guise of racism resistance – deserved heightened attention.
But it was forgotten in the midst of the L.A. riots and famous New York cases of that era known by their neighborhood names, such as Howard Beach and Bensonhurst. O.J. emerged toward the end.
Come to think of it, look at what’s happening to Zimmerman.
He lawfully defended himself, as the jury concluded, when Trayvon Martin beat his head against the concrete. There are no indications that Zimmerman acted in malice, the jurors likewise, agreed. Not a shred of proof that he stalked or attacked Martin; not an iota of evidence that the media’s Hispanic-turned-white-Hispanic Zimmerman had racist intentions or inclinations.
Thank God I was spared the sort of media spotlight he is enduring and will continue to endure into the foreseeable future.
Like me, however, Zimmerman may find himself testifying in federal court.
But thank God I was spared from the sort of “activist” hostility he now faces: hostility that marches toward his door – all our doors – to the tune of emotion-laden, fact-less anti-white drumbeats of hatred.